Tour Diary: Jon Spencer
With bone-dry humour and crushing honesty, the Blues Explosion man reports from the road as the band blast their way across Europe in support of their first album in eight years
Words Jon Spencer
July 10, France, a few miles outside of Bordeaux
Burnt tongue. Bad luck.
A reminder that I musta done something wrong.
Stuck in a terrible traffic jam on the highway between Bordeaux and Perpignan. We have not moved for over two hours. Maybe an accident up ahead? A tractor trailer jack-knifed blocking the way? Another tour bus on its side, musicians staggering in shock, maimed and bleeding? It begs the question: How much longer can we continue to push our luck before tragedy? Travel around the world, endless hours in the air and on the road, when do the wheels fall off? A good cause for worry, but now our more pressing concern is that we may miss our set time at the Les Déferlantes festival.
We made the show. Drive ended up taking 10 hours. Four hours not moving. Another act, Selah Sue from Belgium, was nice enough to swap set times with us. It was the last show of their tour and they were happy to be done and leave for home sooner. I thanked her personally and gave her two bottles of prestige (champagne) as a token of appreciation. Our show was great. Maybe because we were relieved to have made it, to not have missed the gig, and to finally be out of the bus. We had a good time. The festival was at some crazy old villa in the countryside. The night was cool and there was a good breeze blowing across the stage. First half of the set focused more on the new album and then I began calling the hits and bringing it home.
On the other main stage was Noel Gallagher of Oasis fame before us and Franz Ferdinand after. Noel Gallagher: what’s the fucking point? Who wants to hear some tired Beatles rehash? I don’t get it. But he is very funny in interviews. Franz Ferdinand are okay, but I did not watch any of their show. Instead, took the opportunity to do a long interview via Skype with an American journalist. Went fine, but I think the dude was looking for some dirt. Asking about the most difficult period of the band, and the ways in which we don’t get along. How much to say? How much truth to dish? Bottom line is, despite past problems, the vibe is good now and I don’t want to lose that.
Talked a bit with Alex from Franz Ferdinand. He now sports a moustache, which is not doing him any favours in my humble opinion, but we all have to go through our own personal crises. He claims his current girlfriend does not mind. (Alex used to date Eleanor Friedberger from the great Fiery Furnaces. Even wrote a lovely song for her called ‘Eleanor Put Your Boots On’. I bet she would not allow any facial hair!) Franz Ferdinand are working on a new album with the producer Bjorn of Peter Bjorn And John. I think this is the same Bjorn which produced Lykke Li’s last album — a record of which I am very fond. Good songs, broken English lyrics, heartache and a Joe Meek vibe crossed with some modern touches. Maybe it would be nice to work with Mr Bjorn? I’ve shared a producer with Franz Ferdinand before — Tore Johansson — another Scandinavian. In fact, Alex tells me that Tore said to him that he reminded him of “another guitar player, someone who is technically not very good, but interesting: Jon Spencer”. Alex thinks Tore meant it as a bit of insult, but he tells me he took it as a compliment. Franz Ferdinand have also worked at the Key Club recording studio where the JSBX tracked our new record Meat + Bone. And Alex owns a Flickinger console — the same brand of console Meat + Bone was tracked on — that Bill Skibbe (Key Club owner) restored for him. Small world. Too many connections.
July 12, Spain
The bus is old. Has seen better days and I suspect that even those days were not stellar. Still, so far so good — it gets the job done. We move from one place to the next. Usually we never travel by bus, and travel by van instead. It’s only because some of these festival dates are so far apart that the only way possible is to use a nightliner.
My stage clothes stink. Smell awful. Really reek. It’s astounding how bad my wet sweaty clothes can smell. Maybe there is something wrong with me. Something bad inside. Maybe this is the evidence that what we are doing with this band — this rock’n’roll — is indeed wrong, against nature, against God. (Was Jerry Lee right to argue religion with Sam Phillips before he cut ‘Great Balls Of Fire’?) But still I try to dry my stage wear out best I can after every show and dutifully suit up for the next. Like I sang with Heavy Trash [Spencer’s rockabilly band]: “If the suit stinks, buddy, you better wear it.”
Day off, drove 11 hours from Perpignan to Bilbao, arrived at 10pm. The next day we learned that Bob Dylan had given a free concert outside the Guggenheim at 9pm. Kicking ourselves. I would have liked very much to have left earlier to see that, and I am not the huge Dylan freak that Russell [Simins, drums] and Judah [Bauer, guitar] are. Another mistake, another missed opportunity. Yes, we are playing good shows and doing what we need to do, but in my mind everything is falling apart. Any bad luck or small mistake is amplified and seems to portend some much greater and looming disaster.
The BBK festival in Bilbao is at a beautiful site on a mountain overlooking the city. The day is sunny and warm but when night comes the temperature drops and it’s chilly. All the dressing rooms are in a great tent-like structure and share a central hallway. None of the rooms are totally private — the walls do not go to the ceiling. Thus I can hear all the other lunk-head acts doing their ‘thing’. Worst is bands that have a sing along before they take the stage. Shitty acoustic guitar strumming and mangled versions of seventies Rolling Stones songs. Or sports team-style chants or psyche-ups. “Go team!” and that sorta thing. I don’t get it. Go back to football (American or otherwise, you choose). Seems pathetic. Shut the fuck up, go do your work.
On the bus today Russell plays excerpts from the Henry Rollins audio book of Get In The Van (read by Mr Rollins himself). As the Black Flag dates and tours and years go by, Henry seems to get progressively more and more pissed off, psychotic and embarrassingly poetic. Stick to the facts, Hank! At times, I wanna scream at him to grow up. It’s funny stuff. “The show was terrible.” “I got hit in the head.” “Everyone wanted to kick our asses.” “Got hassled by the pigs.” Touring is hard. But as hard as I work, I have never experienced the kind of violence and mind-fuck that Black Flag did. Even though I can relate, I will never truly understand.
Of course Black Flag were a great band, made some great records and laid the groundwork for a lot of the US HC-indie scene and touring network. I saw them play at The Living Room in Providence, Rhode Island, 1984 with Kira on bass. At the time, Henry and Black Flag were such a force and such icons, much like the Pistols or something. For some folks they were gods. I was into them but kinda lost interest as the records became more metal-like. Also it was hard to deal with the scene at their shows, and I don’t think it was just their fans or the thrill-seekers. Black Flag themselves seemed to wanna mess with people’s heads. I never understood why they would take bands like Nig Heist or Tom Troccoli’s Dog along as support (or why SST put out so many bad records.) Reading Stevie Chick’s flawed BF history, Spray Paint The Walls, confirms that there were indeed some bad vibes at the centre of the whole operation.
So, yes, the Blues Explosion has a new album coming out. It has been eight years since our last studio album and much has changed. There are not just new ways to put out an album, but new ways to promote an album: social media. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, not to mention old guys like YouTube and a band website. Got to keep up. I am expected to post new content daily. Like feeding a pet or a baby. Constant attention. The record label I am working with now doesn’t demand this, they just take it for granted. What do you write? I’m old, this is not of my generation. Sometimes it can be fun — taking photos I enjoy — but writing little messages, sharing my day and my thoughts? It is just not in my nature. And it also seems against The System I believe in. I don’t wanna be in close constant contact with the musicians and artists whose work I enjoy or admire. Stop me if I sound like a bad stand-up comedian: “What’s up with these kids and the internet today?” It’s too easy to be snarky and negative. To talk/write shit. But I understand — those are the funniest people to follow. The best posts are those which cut closest to Don Rickles. Why be negative? I think Mark E. Smith is a genius and love to hear him slag off other bands but I am no MES. If ya can’t say something nice, then keep your mouth shut. Elvis Presley is a better role model: always polite, always humble — “yes please”, “no ma’am”, etc. But what should I do when in almost every interview I am asked about all the bands that are supposedly influenced by the Blues Explosion? Bands which are now very famous. Usually I try to dodge the issue, or at the very least be vague. But it’s hard — I really do not like a lot of this music. It just ain’t my bag. Too close to what I found so boring as a kid in the seventies. Where’s the mystery, the strangeness, the sex, the danger?
July 16, Germany
Show last night in Martigny, Switzerland. Drove through the St Bernard Pass to get to this small city nestled in the Alps. Club is a small basement room, and there are puddles of water on the floor. We took these last two gigs to play our way back to Belgium. Airfares were cheaper in and out of one city, and the bus and backline need to get home anyway. The gig in the cellar is great. PA is fine — nice to hear the sound tight in the small room — and great to be close to an audience. Person doing the lights is amazing. Seems to know every cue and is hitting all kinds of accents with strobe. It’s so nice to have good lights.
There is a rough stone wall behind the stage, and through the placement and control of certain lights, the LD is able to make the wall move and vibrate. Almost hallucinatory. I try to draw Russell and Judah’s attention to it. After the gig and loading out (I got no problem working), there is a loose party at the bar and I get a chance to DJ. Every song sounds great (to me), but also as if I’ve never heard it before. Do I really spend so little time these days listening to music? Has my brain suffered some memory loss due to years of rock’n’roll and head-banging? Evil.
Now we are on our way to the last show of the tour in Stuttgart. At soundcheck we will shoot some footage for a promotional video for the song ‘Bag Of Bones’, a clip which will be mostly animated (less work for mother). Leave on the bus straight after the gig, drive over night to a cabin in the Belgian woods to film another video for another song, ‘Black Mold’, this one a narrative, a horror story!
Making videos, doing promotion, who does what in the band: I do everything. Well, no, not really (and it is with great shame and some sadness that I read some JSBX interviews or reviews and there is more discussion about Jack White than Judah Bauer or Russell Simins). The Blues Explosion is very much a musical collaboration and the sum of its parts. But I do basically manage the group and most of my time, especially of late, is taken up with very mundane activities. I believe in punk rock and the ‘Do It Yourself’ ethic but with that comes a lot of shit work. Currently I am dealing with packaging production problems, designing merchandise, trying to hire crew for fall tours, reviewing several different contracts, and mixing a coupla different live recordings, etc., etc. Nothing ever comes out perfect — the end result is always a little flawed. I am a bit of a control freak and the mistakes are overwhelming and debilitating. The Blues Explosion once tried having a manager and it did not go very well. Maybe it was all me? This was back around the time of our Damage album. After the record’s release and our touring cycle, I fired the manager and put the band into hibernation.
August 13, The Netherlands, back on the road again
Playing ‘promo’ invite-only gig at Club Ziggo in Amsterdam. The Club Ziggo is a super-clean posh nightclub attached to the brand-spanking new Ziggo dome — a 17,000 capacity venue. Everything is still kinda under construction. We are in the middle of nowhere, way outside city limits. The combination of remote location and modern architecture make me feel like an extra in Logan’s Run. Ziggo is a big telecommunications company — branching out, I guess. The Blues Explosion set will be filmed and used to promote the new venue. In return, we get to use the footage and do a small show to promote the forthcoming record. We are there all day. Besides regular soundcheck, we gotta check the audio mix for their video, which will be a live-to-2-track affair. Then they gotta check the cameras and the lighting. The venue has lots of white lights and no gels. I don’t like white lights. I like there to be colour, mystery, show business. I wanna feel like a stripper.
I spend a long time talking to the lighting guy; so does my tour manager. The LD seems nice enough and agrees to go out to get some coloured gels. He promises no white and lotsa movement/changes/flashing during the set. After that, two-three hours’ worth of interviews. Again the question of the garage scene or rock’n’roll revival comes up — Stripes, Keys, etc. What can I do? Grin and bear it. During the interviews, the support act, a blues-rock band from Belgium is soundchecking for what seems like forever — really mediocre MOR stuff with the worst guitar tone that kind of fits in with all the questions about a rock’n’roll revival. It’s as if the ape men from 2001 had been in the space station banging away with their bones while the scientists held their meeting.
After a terrible pasta buffet dinner we realise that we are done with press and so escape to our hotel, a bizarre holiday camp made to look like a Chinese pagoda, also in the middle of nowhere. The rest and relief feel good and upon return to the venue I feel energised and excited for the gig. Unfortunately, the venue is quite less than full and the audience moribund.
We play fine, but I am not enjoying things. Some record biz types say you gotta smile when you sing; that it affects the tone of your singing and your performance. I have been thinking about this a lot lately. I worry that I don’t smile. On stage tonight, I think about another recent pre-album release promo show — this one in Brooklyn. We ended up playing very late and I became annoyed. Friends told me that on stage I looked to not be enjoying myself; that I had a thousand yard stare. Here at the Ziggo, my mind locks onto this. And the lights. The gels the LD went to get are a very light shade of blue — kind of a bluish-white — and he keeps them on full, not changing. Before the set, in the afternoon, I was very clear that I wanted flashing lights — nothing to be static. Now I’ve got lamp on my head and I feel like I’m in my fucking living room. I can’t get past this. Instead of losing myself in the music and the show, I focus on the lights and the LD. These club guys are always the same — they tell you they will do what you want, then fuck you when you’re on stage. It’s amazing that it can still burn me. But maybe the bigger problem with the Ziggo show is that I have a set list worked out in my head. Because the venue is making the live-to-2-track recording, I wrote down the songs beforehand and gave it to their recording engineer so that he would know when to turn on the backing vocal mics, or who was gonna play which guitar solo. A mistake. Flying with a plan sucks. Really takes the life out of the show. One of the journalists I talked to that day said that the BX was like a rock’n’roll jazz band in that we were all listening to each other and tuned in onstage. I liked that. So, show over all I can think is that I fucked up: I didn’t smile, I let the lights bug me, we didn’t get enough punters in the room, I used a set list, etc., etc. As is my wont, I tear the performance and myself apart. Just in my head, just for my benefit.
August 16, NYC, home
More interviews. Talking on the phone to folks from all over world. But it’s a good thing. I’d hate to put out a record and no one cares. Gotta let the people know what’s happening! And every single interview, without fail I am asked about those OTHER bands — the ones that the Blues Explosion supposedly spawned. (Don’t blame me, I don’t want that responsibility!) I still don’t get it. I mean, I can understand why — it makes sense on a superficial level, and it might make the journalist’s job easier to make base comparisons and categorisations — but these bands have nothing to do with the music the BX makes; really don’t figure into our working method in any way. And I have always thought that what the Blues Explosion does is different: more confrontational, more experimental, more punk, more out-there and more alive than anything that came up after us. It’s easy to make safe and familiar music and it’s easy to understand why that stuff sells, but what should I say? How should I respond? I really don’t wanna trash another band (although that might make for good reading), but I like what I like. Personal taste is personal taste. So it becomes a dance — some kind of weird game — and invariably I feel as if I’ve said too much or the wrong thing.
The other topic that won’t die is the music business. Yes, a lot has changed since the rise of the internet, and yes I am a part of the machine, but I did not start playing rock’n’roll ’cos I wanted to be in the music business. Yechh. The music business has always been corrupt and no good. Anyone who starts playing in a band to be rich and famous, or as a career move, is a creep. Sure, it’s fun to read about the famous labels of old and crazy producers and all sorts of glorious history, but I am a student and sanctified preacher of music, not the music business. This is my passion. I was so knocked out by all kinds of crazy rock’n’roll, punk rock and noise that I could think of nothing else but doing it for myself. And doing it by myself as well. DIY, baby! Hardcore may not have been my most favourite form of music, but it taught me a lot of important lessons. You wanna start a band, do it. You wanna make a record, go for it. You wanna go on tour, book it. Don’t wait for permission.
The other night we played a party on a rooftop in lower Manhattan on a beautiful summer evening. The night was cool and the city looked fabulous as the sky grew dark. The band sounded great, and we played pretty much nothing but songs from our raw new record, Meat + Bone. The crowd stomped and shouted. How nice to see and feel people respond positively to new material. Vindication! Cristina [Martinez, Spencer’s wife] is here. Man, I feel good! It’s great to make this noise with Judah and Russell. The Blues is still number 1! I gotta thank my lucky stars. And try to remember that sometimes things go well enough to make me forget all the mistakes worry and confusion, if only for just a little while.